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The Power of Empowerment: How Culture Can Be a Strategic Advantage

Dr. John Wigneswaran is a member of the MIT EMBA class of 2015 and vice president of Clinical Affairs a DaVita Healthcare Partners. He also is a member of the board of directors at Nephroceuticals, which he founded, and Roo Healthcare Solutions.

I’ve bought shoes from Zappos, but I hadn’t realized how the cultural background of the company really dictates its entire business strategy on multiple levels. In particular, it emphasizes empowering lower-level employees to better serve customers. Further, the CEO sits among his employees, avoiding delineation.

Prof. Ray Reagans and Prof. Roberto Fernandez call this being “OP enabled”, named after their course Organizational Processes. This means being able to look critically at how an organization is built, going beyond the obvious structural aspects to see how people interact with each other. This requires using different lenses such as those colored by culture, politics, and strategy to find granularity in complex organizational processes.

The day after we discussed Zappos in class, I started making some changes. At the company I founded, Nephroceuticals, we serve nearly 10,000 patients who purchase our vitamins. The Zappos case hit home because customer service is similarly crucial to our success.

As a result, I talked to our customer service representatives about going the extra mile for patients. If a patient calls with a concern, like an inability to tolerate a specific ingredient, the employee should feel empowered to send an email acknowledging the concern and offering a refund or a free alternative bottle of vitamins. Our employees now say they feel more important in the process, as they can make a better impact for our customers. This also furthers our mission of helping patients with medical needs.

Don’t be a Hobgoblin

Humans tend to make decisions based on what we feel we’re supposed to be doing or what is “natural.” However, as Ralph Waldo Emerson said – “foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” Sometimes you need to take a step back and question that decision, and not react as consistently as you may have. Try something different!

I applied this concept to my work at Fresenius, where I was restructuring my division. Looking at my decisions through a cultural lens, I realized that we needed to embed our mission on a task level. The things we reward within the organization needed to be drilled down to the minute tasks performed on a daily basis. Culture can’t be a decree, instead it must be practiced.

To accomplish this, we changed our compensation structure. Instead of basing bonuses only on how many devices were sold each day, we based a percentage of the reward on having specific dialogues with different teams within the organization. A significant percentage of the bonus became based on talking to our clinical team, reaching out to internal customers, and networking within our core group. That really changed our group dynamic, reinforcing a culture of teamwork and also placing an emphasis on communicating to better serve our patients.

Making an Impact

We can say on our letterhead that we care about patients. However, when we focus on that mission at a granular task level – empowering employees to better serve customers and linking compensation to things like collaboration – you can really make the mission part of the culture of your company.

How does your company’s culture impact your business strategy? What lenses do you use to make decisions?

Originally Published: MIT Executive Insights Blog
Author: John Wigneswaran